by Hugh Hunter
The American classic “Awake & Sing!” (1935) by Philadelphia born Clifford Odets is seldom performed. Is it too difficult to stage or too “left-wing” for an American audience? In either event, do yourself a favor and take in the superb revival now running at Quintessence Theatre Group.
Under the deft direction of Max Shulman, “Awake” is a taut, gripping drama in which you revisit the Great Depression through the eyes and ears of the Bergers, a struggling Jewish family in New York. The poetic, Yiddish-inflected dialogue of Odets draws you into a world that is both Jewish and universal; the conflicts in the Berger family mirror what was happening in 1930’s America.
Quintessence stage sets are frequently minimal, but here the atmospheric set design of Meghan Jones recreates the cramped Bronx apartment. A prominent, dirty window both shuts out and admits the hard realities of their tough city. Bessie (Sabrina Profitt), a practical matriarch, reigns, but she is always challenged by her elderly father, Jacob (Lawrence Pressman), a Marxist idealist. (Pressman starred in the TV show “Doogie Howser” and had major roles in several movies, including both “American Pie” films.)
No one is this household is shy about speaking his/her mind. They include Bessie’s son Ralph (DJ Gleason) and daughter Hennie (Melody Ladd). Bessie housebreaks both husband Myron (Bradley Mott) and schlemiel boarder Sam (Trevor William Fayle), tragicomic figures in a constant state of lament. While family friend Moe (Lee Cortopassi) and self-pleased businessman Uncle Morty (Buzz Roddy) are in understated conflict, the family is a boiling pot of conflicting desire and sorrow.
Odets was a prominent member of The Group Theater in New York. He never lived up to his early promise, went on to become a so-so Hollywood writer, and was deeply injured by the 1950s’ McCarthy Red-baiting hearings. But in “Awake” he is at his best, where dark secrets of each character slowly emerge. With masterful story telling, you see how new disclosures enrich, deepen or destroy existing relationships.
Shulman’s talented cast members obscure how tricky the key roles are to stage. Bessie and Jacob could easily dip into stereotype, worse still, just be played for gag lines. But in the able hands of Profitt and Pressman they are deeply yearning and complex people who surprise you with their actions. Ladd’s brooding Hennie and Cortopassi’s casual, flippant Moe both mask deep despair. And as Ralph, Gleason never sinks into the pigeonhole of whiny young idealist.
“Awake & Sing!” (an exhortation from Isaiah the prophet: “You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”) may be the best of our depression era plays. Its enduring appeal lies in characters who fight to find joy in life and in showing the authentic interdependence of private lives and families with the larger world. It is a sensibility that we today, in both theater and politics, are struggling to regain.
Quintessence Theatre Group is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Awake & Sing!” will run through Feb 17. Tickets are available at 215987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org